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Can the Penguins piece together three useful defense pairings with the players they have?

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Which pairings worked (and did not work) during the 2018-19 season?

Vancouver Canucks v Pittsburgh Penguins

Earlier this week the Athletic’s Rob Rossi took an in-depth look at the Pittsburgh Penguins’ defense for the 2019-20 season, making the case that the unit might not be as bad as it is expected to be by pretty much everyone outside of the Penguins organization.

It is worth the read (check it out) and does make some compelling arguments.

Those arguments mainly revolve around the presence of Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin, the emergence of Marcus Pettersson, and what will (hopefully) be a healthy season from Justin Schultz (something we have not really seen since he has been in Pittsburgh).

Assuming Letang and Schultz stay healthy (big if) and Pettersson eventually gets signed (he will) that should, in theory, give the Penguins three capable puck-moving defenders, one that can drive each of the three defense pairings.

In the eyes of the Penguins, that should give them the makings of a capable defense.

Maybe it will.

The problem is that it takes two defenders to make a defense pairing and I am not sure the Penguins defense has enough extra players to complement the good ones.

I will concede that if everything goes exactly as planned and every circumstance around the defense is perfect that there is a chance for a solid group. Those circumstances include everything from key players (Letang and Schultz) staying healthy, to players like Pettersson and Erik Gudbranson not regressing from what we saw last season, to the coaching staff playing and deploying the right players.

The more “ifs” you throw into a team, the more likely it is that something is going to go wrong.

The challenge for the Penguins: Finding three defense pairings that work using these — barring some sort of last minute trade — nine players

Kris Letang
Brian Dumoulin
Marcus Pettersson
Justin Schultz
Erik Gudbranson
Jack Johnson
Chad Ruhwedel
Jusso Riikola
Zach Trotman

Can it be done?

I went back and looked at how all of these players did when paired with one another throughout the 2018-19 season. I only looked at their performances with these players (so their minutes with Olli Maatta, Jamie Oleksiak, or any other defender not returning are out, because they are not options for this season) to see which pairings performed the best, and which ones performed the worst.

Here are those performances looking at Goals For and Goals Against, Shot Attempt share (CF%), scoring chance sharee (SC%) and high-danger scoring chance share (HDSC%).

(All numbers via Natural Stat Trick)

Black numbers are good. Red numbers are bad.

Too. Much. Red.

Let’s start with the good. There is one pairing that jumps off the page and that of course is Letang and Dumoulin. They are perfect together and breaking that duo up for any extended period of time would be pure insanity. It is not only by far the Penguins’ best pairing — one that excels across the board — it is one of the best pairings in the entire league. A legitimate top pairing on a championship caliber team.

The problem is finding two more pairings that can keep the team above water when they are not on the ice.

Rossi floated the idea of a Schultz-Johnson second pairing and ... well ... I just don’t see how that is going to work. It is obvious by now that the Penguins are going to go to extreme lengths to justify Johnson’s presence and contract and that they truly do value something that he brings. The loudest argument lately is that he was playing on the wrong side for much of last season and that is why he struggled so much (this argument of course ignores a decades worth of performance before that).

Schultz and Johnson spent a significant amount of time on the ice together last season, and while they barely came out ahead in the goal department, they were absolutely decimated when it came to shot attempts and scoring chances, despite the fact the bulk of the shifts started in the offensive zone.

Yes, goals are what matter most. I get it. You are not breaking new ground here when you talk about that being the most important thing. But we are trying to project what will happen next, and it should not be a controversial position to say a defense pairing that bleeds shots and scoring chances against is probably going to end up eventually getting burned. The more shots and chances you ask your goalie to stop, the more goals they will eventually surrender.

I know everyone is tired of this dead horse being beaten in the ground, but the Penguins gave Johnson extended ice-time with just about every single defender on the roster, and not only did all of those pairings struggle, every pairing with him on it was among the worst in every objective measure. Ignoring that at this point is either willful ignorance, furthering your own personal agenda, or having a stake in the investment and trying to justify why it is not a failure.

That can not be your second pairing.

What is fascinating is that the next-best pairing after Letang-Dumoulin that saw a reasonable amount of ice time was the Pettersson-Gudbranson pairing.

They were good. Really good. They were not exactly sheltered, either, with only 42 percent of their shifts starting in the offensive zone and the majority of their minutes coming WITHOUT one of Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin on the ice with them.

Let us split those minutes up:

They were the anti-Schultz/Johnson pairing in every possible way, from deployment to performance. It did not matter who they played with at forward, it did not matter where they started their shifts on the ice, it did not matter who they played against. They were simply good. Look at that performance without Crosby or Malkin. Heavy on the defensive zone, and still moving the puck north and dominating the shot attempt and scoring chance shares and, yes, the goals.

Here is the problem: One of those players (Pettersson) remains unsigned because they have no salary cap space, and one of the potential trade options to clear salary cap space to sign him might be the player that worked best with him.

We are also dealing with a mostly small sample size here. For as promising as Pettersson looked, he is still a bit of an unknown with just one full season under his belt, while Gudbranson’s career performance prior to this has been mostly underwhelming.

Can they repeat that performance over a larger sampling of games? That is the big unanswered question. But do you know what? Given the other alternatives it might be worth seeing if they can.

But keeping them together also means you are still left with the Schultz-Johnson pairing, and that can not be your second pairing. It just can not.

If you leave Schultz with Johnson you once again put him in a pairing that has serious red flags regarding their future performance.

If you scratch or trade Johnson and play Schultz with some revolving door of Riikola, Ruhwedel, or Trotman you are limiting one of your best players on the blue line to what is basically a third-pairing role with a player that probably shouldn’t be anything more than a No. 7 defender.

Trading for another top-four defender to play next to him seems like an impossibility given the salary cap situation.

The other option is to try Schultz with Pettersson or Gudbranson. Maybe Schultz and Pettersson could work, but the Penguins may not be inclined to put two puck-movers together because it would break up the “one puck-mover on each pairing” set-up and probably leave them with an even worse third-pairing. It also breaks up what was your second-best pairing a year ago given the current roster.

I know Jim Rutherford’s thoughts on the defense. We all do. We have all heard them, laughed at them, and we should all realize that he really believes what he is saying about them. If he did not, he would have done something more to address the position.

I also know the arguments from the people that don’t want to hear about analytics and numbers and are convinced that some of these guys are better than their numbers because ... they just are.

But it keeps reminding me of a scene in the movie Moneyball where Brad Pitt, as Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane, is arguing with his scouts about a hitter in their minor league system. The scouts love the hitter because he looks the part and has a great, smooth swing and can really smack the ball. Pitt finally speaks out in disgust and simply asks, “If this guy’s a good hitter why doesn’t he hit good?”

The same thing applies to a significant portion of the Penguins’ defense. If these guys are such good defenders, then why don’t they defend and perform better? You would think if they were as good as the Penguins believe there would be something to show it.

So that is the situation.

Right now there is one legitimately great pairing (Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin).

There is another intriguing pairing that exceeded expectations and performed exceptionally well a year ago that might have the potential to be useful (Marcus Pettersson and Erik Gudbranson), but is still a big question mark.

There is Justin Schultz playing the role of Tom Hanks in Castaway trying to make it work as a lone man on an island with only a volleyball and a broken ice skate at his side.

If everything goes absolutely perfect, there is a chance for a solid top-four or five here.

If one of those top players goes out of the lineup, or if someone regresses, or if someone else gets played in the wrong role problems are sure to follow.